One of the most memorable moments of the 2019 Grand Rapids Comic Con came from an offhanded joke I made to award-winning novelist Timothy Zahn about Jar Jar Binks, because that’s a normal thing that normal people do.
Zahn was a terrific interview, fielding questions not just from an eager crowd of fans, but from me as well (the dude created Admiral Thrawn and basically started up the entire concept of Star Wars expanded universe, so I had a bunch of nerd questions myself). He was engaging, thoughtful, and just sharp as hell – his answers would just leave us all gawping.
In the midst of this whole shebang, someone had asked about establishing characters, developing their personalities, and of course Zahn gave a spectacular answer about discovering a defining characteristic for a character, and working on what their motivations would be and how that would impact the narrative. Bowled over, I casually said that after hearing how well he knew the universe and how adept he was at getting to the core of a character, I couldn’t wait for him to start his Jar Jar Binks redemption story.
It was then that Mr. Zahn proceeded to blow our fucking minds.
He could always tolerate a buffoon in any story, he said. Any comic relief, any character whose sole purpose was to be an idiot, could be tolerated if they were handled correctly. However, what he could not tolerate – especially in regards to Jar Jar – was a wasted opportunity to give that comic relief a defining redemptive moment.
There is a scene in the Phantom Menace where Jar Jar could’ve had his whole character arc changed, Zahn said to a stunned crowd. One moment where he could go from being one of the single most hated sci-fi characters of all time (so hated that the actor portraying him CONSIDERED SUICIDE), to one that would earn his place in the Star Wars mythos as a true heroic character.
We all remembered it, of course: in the face of certain doom, the Gungans were battling the droid army and losing poorly. The whole battle was a gambit to stall the droid army so the rebels could invade the federation’s stronghold and disable the main droid hub. Jar Jar and a Gungan general were both knocked from their mounts in that climactic battle, the general lamenting that this was looking hopeless. Jar Jar lifted his dumb, pathetic arms in the air and said, like a moron: “Meesa surrender!”
You’re picturing it now, aren’t you? You hear that voice, grating your brain like cat’s claws. You see that long, stupid face with its dopey defeated expression. I hate him. I hate him so much.
But, Zahn said, shaking us from our collective rage stupor, one character choice was all it would have taken. Five seconds, maybe.
Instead, have Jar Jar pick up the rifle from a discarded droid arm. Have him turn to the fallen general, with a determination we’d never seen before, and say, “Yes, but all weesa can’t give up yet – all weesa need to do is buy them some time.” And then he starts shooting.
That is it. That is the entire moment Zahn painted for us, and by god, if we all didn’t have our minds reduced to mayonnaise; it made perfect sense. Jar Jar had shown glimpses, small shreds, of bravery and loyalty by sticking around the Jedis, helping somewhat to rally the Gungans to their cause. Hell, he joined the battle itself, didn’t he?
Yet that small twist turned him from basically a detriment to the rebellions’ cause to someone worthy of praise. A character who makes a stand to rally the troops and fight against impossible odds. He would truly become a leader among his people and earn the respect of the Queen and the Jedis he wanted so desperately to help. The sky would be the limit for that character, and it would help turn the tide of hatred towards him.
We all applauded when Zahn finished.